Writing, oh my!

Here’s a post of disparaging quotes from writers on other writers. The one below made me smile, because I thought it was admiring rather than disparaging.

15. William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

I believe if the reader has to stop to look up a word, or stop to marvel at a clever turn of phrase you’ve lost them. You’ve broken the suspension of disbelief. My philosophy is that story is King (or Queen). I put a lot of effort into making the writing smooth, so that it slips into the head and creates story without being noticed.

The one thing I take away from all these disparaging comments writers have made about other writers is that you can’t please everyone, so you might as well write the book that you want to read.

I spent last weekend at Sydney Supanova (Yay, lots of fun. Wish I hadn’t lost my voice!). We authors were all talking about the state of the publishing industry. Huge bookstore chains closing down. Kindle millionaires. Barry Eisler turning down half a million to self publish!

Here we have an author selling a million copies of their e-books through Amazon.

And here we have Bob Mayer talking about whether to self publish or not if you are a new writer.  He makes a good point about learning the craft of writing. I know I’ve spent years honing my writing skills and I still like to get feedback from my writing group as well as my editor.

This is a short post today. I’ve been really sick and had to keep working through it and my brain is fried. Feel free to chip in with comments about self publishing, where the industry is going, or your opinion on the craft of writing.


19 thoughts on “Writing, oh my!

  1. I’ve always loved Hemingway’s reply. “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

    None the less, I think you’re absolutely right. Writing so the writing is ‘invisible’ and only the story comes through is a task requiring enormous skill, and is a lot harder than wordy turgid, read three times to get the author’s meaning drivel. Alas, the value of the former is rarely appreciated, because if it is really good, it’s invisible.

    Hope you feel better soon

    1. Thanks, Dave. This ‘flu made me grateful for antibiotics.

      Love Hemmingway’s reply.

      My other favourite quote is by Jack London. Something about not waiting for inspiration, but going after it with a club.

    1. That was my fave. I almost fell out of my chair.
      That said i couldn’t find anything insulting about Nabokov on Dostoevsky, truth is truth.

    1. Weird, that last reply was to Pam and it ended up going under Amanda’s comment.

      Thanks, Amanda. I haven’t been this sick in ages. As I said, made me grateful for modern medicine.

  2. Sigh. In general, having been on both sides of this, I oppose writers telling other writers how to write or saying what someone else did in his/her books was doing it wrong.

    Both sides of this? Yes. I can — and rarely, but occasionally feel the need to — wallow in words and precious constructions. A caveat — I never could get to the end of a single Faulkner story. But I hate Hemingway with a passion too — is that the style must serve the book. I couldn’t write my Shakespeare books in plain English and not just because of what the editor had told me — “I want it to feel like Shakespeare” — but also because the words are part of the …. spell in that story. They help me weave the feel of the supernatural and the time. If I wrote it today I might throttle back a little, though. Very educated friends couldn’t FINISH them.

    OTOH things like Darkship Thieves are written as plainly as I can, to get the action and the meaning across and also the feel of this rather uh practical woman’s perspective. I swear the most poetic Athena gets is when swearing.

    Still on the other hand, things like my Victorian fantasies and the shifter books are somewhere between, as are the musketeer mysteries. This is because I’ve learned (I think) to evoke the place and time without making it so thick that it’s like swimming in jello. But the language and the complexity thereof SHOULD fit with AND serve the narration.

    NOTHING annoys me more than a period book in which the character says … oh… “What’s up?” or “Whatever.”

    All that said, books that seemed perfectly plain to me once upon a time, like, say, Dragon Riders of Pern, I can no longer read, as the language feels unecessarilly precious. What changed? Not the book. I’ve owned it all this time. Was it me, though, or the general level of language I read now?

    1. You make a good point, Sarah.

      ‘the language and the complexity thereof SHOULD fit with AND serve the narration.’

      If you’r writing a book set in the renaisance, then the language should reflect this, only in the sense that it gives the right feel.

      I’ve read books where characters from the 12th century use modern slang and it makes me want to throw the book across the room.

      1. The problem with summary defenestration these days is to do it you have to sacrifice an innocent computer or kindle. Somehow the recycle bin just doesn’t have that visceral satisfaction.

        And yes, the prose becomes invisible when the style fits with the era and the narration. You’d expect different language from a Renaissance bawd than a modern Harvard graduate – and a different rhythm to the words, and a whole different pattern of speech.

        Kind of like it would be hideous to have your Shakespeare characters speaking Hemingway – and vice versa.

    2. As far as the telling someone that they’re doing it wrong my view is more like Kipling’s “In the Neolithic Age:”
      “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.”
      Something may be wrong for the particular story or for the particular market. It may be poorly executed. But simply using a large vocabulary of “fancy words” or complicated grammar (or vice versa–common words and simple grammar) being automatically “wrong” strikes me as being itself wrong.

      As for sending someone to the dictionary, I remember first encountering the word “perspicacity” in Anne Mcaffrey’s “Restoree.” I did not know the word but was able to pick up the basic meaning from context and later I looked it up to confirm the meaning. In that case since I was able to easily pick up the meaning from context I wasn’t thrown out of the story and I picked up a new word for my vocabulary. Wins all around.

      1. David, any word should be understandable from its context. I used to get in trouble in primary school because I never put down the books I was reading to look up words in the dictionary.

      2. (No “Reply” on Rowena’s message so I’ll post my reply here.) Given fairly cohesive writing just about any one unfamiliar word will be generally be clear from context. That breaks down when there are too many such words–when the writer has a vocabulary quite a bit larger than the reader and uses it. Then, you start losing context.

        I see that happen with my daughter. She reads well above her “grade level” but has problems sometimes because she just hasn’t developed the vocabulary for the more . . . I don’t want to say “advanced” and “adult” carries subtext that doesn’t really apply . . . books she tries to read.

        However for a reasonably well-read, literate individual who is in the target audience for a particular work that should rarely happen.

        1. when I was six, I thought “native” meant savage, because er… I was reading well above my level. It didn’t stop me, but sometimes I had to adust ideas later.

      3. David, I can remember reading, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a child. All the nautical terms went over my head. It was like an alien space ship. I had only a vague idea from context. But I stuck with it, because I was interested in the people.

        I think as a child, there are a lot of things that don’t make a lot of sense and you take them on faith. One day, they will make sense. Life is like this giant puzzle and you keep finding pieces then slotting them in. Sometimes you have to move them because they don’t really fit.

        I’m still adding pieces to the puzzle now, or uncovering new areas that I have to make sense of.

  3. I’ve done a lot of reading out loud to my kids over the years including: the entire Harry Potter (twice), LOTR/Hobbit, and many, many more… Difficult language is hard to read to yourself, and almost impossible to read out loud and still have it make sense.

    Reading LOTR out loud is a much harder than HP – by a long shot, but when you get into it, you develop a rhythm. I guess it’s something like the rhythm of the author. Obscure, or difficult sentences open up and actually have more meaning. I’ve heard others say this after listening to an audiobook after reading the paper copy.

    I agree that language should fit frame and theme, but simplifying language can also remove part of the reason for reading. I actually enjoy vagary, and writing that can make a point without bulldozing the reader. When someone criticises my work for not plainly stating what’s going on, I don’t always take it as negative because that is often how I feel when I’m writing. I don’t want everyone to know exactly what’s going on.

    Hell, I don’t always want to know exactly what’s going on! You shouldn’t always get to feel that smug sense of omniscience at the end of a story. Well, unless it’s a kid’s book I guess.

    1. Chris, I did a lot of reading aloud to my kids. They loved Mark Twain and once I got the accents right, the phonetic writing of the dialogue was not a problem. The scene where he feeds the poor cat his tonic and it goes crazy had my kids in stitches.

      Meaning embedded in narrative. I like to embed thing sinto the narrative that only become clear as people read deeper into the story. So they think they understand a person’s motivation but further into the book they realise a whole lot more is going on. But then it isn’t about hte language used, so much as the meanings being layered.

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